Read Lightbringer Online

Authors: K.D. McEntire

Lightbringer (5 page)

“Look, Wendy, I know you're sixteen and you're practically an adult and all that jazz, I understand that. And you've never gotten into trouble. After your mother…well, for the past six months you've been a super help around the house. I know the twins wouldn't cope as well as they do if it weren't for you.” He hesitated.

Inwardly, Wendy snorted and thought:
Well-adjusted. Right.
If her father knew half of what was going on in their house, there was no way he'd be in such a big rush to hurry from assignment to assignment the way he did. On the bright side, his willful ignorance left her plenty of time to roam around town in the dead of the night, so she wasn't anxious to alert him to his misconceptions.

Wendy sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah. But?”

“Wendy, sweetie, I'm just worried about you. You used to be a straight A student. You used to be in choir, you were on the student council. But now you and Eddie…” He waved his hand half-heartedly. “The two of you dye your hair black and paint your nails black and all those piercings can't be healthy. Don't even get me started on the ink your mother approved right before…well, you know.”

Wendy's hand flew to her ears where, under her palms, seven studs marched up the curve from the lobe to cartilage on either side. “Hey! I like my ears.”

“This isn't a joke, Wendy. You barely sleep, you barely eat, you're out at all hours, and your grades have been dropping all year. Since your mother landed in the hospital you look like death warmed over, and I'm getting sick of watching you screw up your life.”

Offended, Wendy sat further back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, lips tightening into a thin line, eyes narrowing to slits. “Screw up my life? How so, huh?”

Point blank her father demanded, “Are you two doing drugs?” He crossed his arms over his chest, mirroring Wendy's posture. “Pot? X? Some kinda acid or pills, maybe? Speed? You're skinny enough for it.”

Wendy, stunned, sputtered. She couldn't believe this. Her button-down, uptight father was accusing her of getting high? Sure she looked rough, but of all the people in the house to point a finger at, why did he pick
her?

Ignoring her shock and anger, her father forged on. “I was sixteen once too, Wendy. I'll understand if you've been experimenting, but if you're on something really dangerous, I have to put a stop to it. I'm not going to let you fry your brain.”

Finally she found some words. They weren't the right words, but anything was better than gaping at her father with her mouth hanging open. “I'm
sorry
, Dad, but
excuse me?
Seriously? I mean…seriously? What the fuck, Dad!”

“Wendy, honey—” Taken aback by her fury, her father dropped his arms and half-rose from the edge of her bed, confusion written all over his face. “Come on, kiddo. Language.”

“Don't ‘Wendy-honey’ me, Dad!” Wendy knew her voice was rising shrilly, tottering on the edge of hysterical anger, but she hardly cared. “Look, I'm not a baby! There are all kinds of people selling at school and I could get high anytime I want, but I have this whole ‘my-body-is-a-temple’ thing and I'd really rather not. Hell, Dad, I don't even
drink!”
Wendy slammed her Algebra book closed.

“Keep your voice down! The twins are asleep!”

From beneath the bed Jabber began to growl, low and long. Wendy dropped her tone to an angry hiss, unconsciously mimicking the cat. “Whatever. I'm not pulling A's anymore, sure, but French sucks and English is boring and Algebra is hard, but since B's were good enough for
Mom
you really shouldn't give a shit!”

Horrified, Wendy's jaw clicked shut and she pressed her hands across her mouth as if she could choke the words back, shame coloring her cheeks scarlet.

“You're right,” her father said, using the edge of the desk to rise. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled his feet, bunny slippers rubbing the carpet with a whispery sigh.

“D-dad,” stammered Wendy, “I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to—”

“You did.” He fumbled at his hips for a moment before realizing his robe was on the mend pile and there were no pockets to shove his hands into. “But that's okay. I believe you, and I'm sorry I brought it up. You finish up your homework and get to bed.”

“Dad—”

“Hush. Come here.” Her father drew her close and gave her a tight hug. Wendy could smell the traces of Irish Spring on his skin and the fainter smell of ammonia and bleach. He'd been to the hospital again tonight. He practically lived there when he was home.

“I don't do drugs, Dad.” Wendy stepped back, slid into her desk chair. Her fury abated, she felt cold and tired and very, very sad. She shrugged, uncomfortable but feeling a need to say it once while she had her dad on the defensive, so that they would never need to have this sort of conversation again. “And, just in case you were wondering, I know what I look like, but I don't sleep around either. Really.”

“Good to know, kiddo.” He ruffled her hair and walked to the door. “Sweet dreams.”

“Night, Dad.”

He turned the knob, then paused. “Oh, Wendy? I've got a big contract coming up at the end of this week. I'll be gone eight, maybe nine days.”

“Okay.” Her mousy-looking father was a corporate efficiency consultant—a destroyer of jobs and dreams all in the name of profit—and his efficiency audits often had him on the road for weeks at a time. When he was gone, Wendy was in charge. “I have it all under control.”

“Never doubted it for a moment.” They paused, both aware of the irony of his statement, and then he slipped back into the hallway without another word.

Weary now, and wanting nothing more than to simply sink into her bed and sleep for a year, Wendy rifled through her Algebra text until she found the assignment again. A tear plopped onto the page, magnifying a variable, and Wendy wiped it away. Four hours until school, ten more polynomials, and an outline for her English Lit report.

“I can do this,” she whispered, rubbing the heel of her palm against her eye as Jabber slunk through the desk to twine about her ankles. “I have it all under control.”

D
ue to Lily's injuries, getting back to Elle's was harder than usual, but Piotr was unwilling to walk away from their encounter without spreading word of the monstrous Lightbringer to the other Riders. The Lost were asleep when they arrived, huddled together under sleeping bags and stretched out atop beanbags. Specs, finger tucked most of the way through a
Lord of the Rings
omnibus, stirred when Piotr took off his glasses, but did not wake.

“You birds are all wet,” Elle said as Piotr rejoined the ladies downstairs. “You're telling me some mook with a light show bumped off two Walkers with no problems whatsoever?” Agitated, she ran hands through her hair, mussing her fingerpicked curls every which way. “That's crazy!”

“It happened,” Piotr said doggedly. “We would not lie to you, Elle.”

“Yeah-yeah, I know you wouldn't beat your gums ‘bout nothin’ strong enough to take a pair of Walkers for a ride.” Elle sighed. “Talk about your urban legends coming to life, though. I always reckoned that the stories of a ghost-killer were just a bunch of bull.”

“The whispers among us sometimes tell tales true as well as false,” Lily agreed, settling to the ground and carefully crossing her legs under her. Dora had been awake when they'd arrived; thanks to her, Lily's wounds were healed, but she would need Elle to help scavenge new clothing for her, or Lily would need to generate enough spare essence to repair her own. “It was some sort of creature.” Fastidiously, Lily picked at the mud dried on a braid, scraping the dirt off and dropping it to the floor.

“Before it started shredding Walkers like paper, Lily called it the Lightbringer,” Piotr said, moving carefully so the last stairs wouldn't creak under his weight and possibly wake the assembled Lost upstairs. “It's an apt name.”

“Stop mixing your mud in with my dust,” Elle grumbled to Lily, striding over to a nearby cabinet and retrieving a paper sack. She dropped it in Lily's lap then paused by a nearby window. Scowling, she peered outside. “Pick up the muck and chuck it. This joint ain't James' pigsty.”

“He must be told,” said Piotr, flopping to the ground beside Lily. Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, he groaned. “James and the rest of them. But I'll be damned if I'm going all the way to Half Moon Bay just to spread the word.”

“Pipe down, flyboy.” Turning away from the window, Elle leaned against the wall and tipped her head back. “It sounds like maybe we might have a situation on our hands. I'll send a runner out to James' at dawn.” She paused. “Though I still ain't clear on why dusting two Walkers ain't cause to crack out the butts ’n beers.” Elle pressed her fingers to her lips and sighed. “What I wouldn't give for a ciggy right now.”

“Poison to the mind and body,” Lily stated. “A brave needs not—”

Elle pushed off from the wall, hands fisted. “Oh yeah, Pocahontas? You wanna talk about poisonin' a good thing, then?”

“Hey, hey!” Piotr moved to stand between them, holding his arms out, fingers spread. “Ladies, ladies, relax. This isn't the time for us to be bickering.”

Disgusted, Elle slapped his hand away. “Shoulda known you'd take her side, you piker.” Scowling, she stormed over to the window again and planted hands on either side of the frame, glaring out into the murky fog.

“Elle—”

“These debates do nothing for us.” Within moments Lily was on her feet and at the door. Hand on the knob, she surveyed the cluttered room imperiously. “My chance to retrieve Dunn is gone now, thanks to the Lightbringer. It ate the ones who took my Lost, leaving me no beast to track. If you will give me no succor, Elle, then I'll hunt blind.”

Elle sagged against the window at the mention of the missing child. Piotr felt for her, he really did. Things were tangled between the three of them, words left unspoken for years now, and if this crisis didn't involve the Lost, she might not have even let them through the door. Elle might hate Piotr, but she outright loathed Lily.

“No, keep looking,” Elle finally said, words pitched low and slow. “I'll send out scouts during daylight hours and keep a watch myself at night.” She straightened and squared her shoulders, settling hands on her hips and raising her chin defiantly. “But when this thing is over we've got a conversation coming, you understand me, Pocahontas?”

Gravely, Lily nodded. “Understood…bitch.”

Surprisingly, Elle threw back her head and laughed. Casually she pushed away from the wall and strolled to Piotr's side, dropping gracelessly to the floor beside him. “Yeah, yeah, fine. So, Petey, gimme the skivvy on this Lightbringer's mug so my boys can keep an eye peeled.”

“Tentacles,” Piotr replied, turning his eyes to the ceiling when Elle's skirt rode high on her hips. A soft rustle of fabric indicated Lily's return to the floor on his other side. “Tentacles of light. It was still so I could not gauge the speed, but it has—oh, I don't know what to call it. Some sort of pheromone. It makes you want to get closer to it.”

“Phera-what now?”

“Like a flower that sings to the bee with its sweet odor,” Lily explained. “Or the cat in heat that cries to every tom within range. That scent is difficult to resist.”

“But you two pills managed.”

Piotr glanced down and was glad to see that Elle had rearranged her short shift and was once again decent.
“Da
, but we weren't close. The Walkers were sucked in, moths to a flame. At the end, one fought, but…the call was strong.”

“So it's a distance thing?” Elle shrugged. “I've got some spare bows. Me'n Pocahontas here can go pepper that thing full of holes right now.” She smirked. “No offense, but your aim ain't exactly ducky, flyboy. We can gather up some folks, Riders and their Lost, get ‘em all here to circle the wagons so to speak. Get a patrol going, maybe, and sort out some ammunition.”

“A roster is needed,” Lily agreed, fired by Elle's warrior intensity. “Perhaps we could arrange for a hunting party.”

“That's a good idea. We don't want to jump in without knowing what we're up against,” Piotr cautioned. “This thing…I've never even heard of anything like this before. I've already left my Lost here. I should be the scout.”

Lily's hand, cool and dry, touched his. Her eyes were dark with apology. “No offense is intended, Piotr, but you are not the most reliable of sources for such matters. I do not believe you should be the one scouting. With his connections, James may be a better choice for this.”

Offended, Piotr scowled at Lily and pulled away. “What's that supposed to mean? You think I can't handle myself, is that it? You think James might've heard something I haven't?” The words wanted to come out in Russian but he forced himself to speak slowly and form the phrases in English. “Because I know you two are friendly now, but James wasn't the one saving you from those Walkers, was he? And I'll have you know, I'm better at keeping my ear to the ground than
James
could ever be!”

“Now ain't the time—” Elle began, but Piotr cut her off.

“Net
, I want to hear this.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Tell me. What's James got that I don't? How would James, Mr. Punch-It-and-It'll-Go-Away, be a better scout than me? What? Lily? No answer? What about you, Elle? How's James better than me, huh?”

“Pete, you've been balled up for longer than I've been dead,” Elle cried in exasperation, half-laughing, half-angry. “Loonier than a henhouse rat. I've known you for decades. Even way back when, you were a deuce or two shy of a full deck. A couple aces down, a couple marbles lost.” Elle groaned and rubbed a hand across her face. “Listen up, jealousy, we ain't got time for one of your offended megrims, got it?”

Piotr clashed gazes with her, unwilling to let the suggestion that he might not be an asset to their team pass. “It's a simple question. I simply want an answer.”

Elle slammed a fist on the floor. “Fine! You want to know the truth, Petey? Great, here's the truth. You're mostly right—even Pocahontas here is willing to admit that, kissy-face or not, James has himself one hell of a temper and under normal circumstances he ain't better than you at most things. But there is one mighty exception: that old memory of yours just ain't what it used to be, and James ain't in the habit of forgetting things. We need a scout we can trust, Petey, that's all we meant.”

“My memory?” Piotr rolled his eyes. “That's what this is about? Everyone forgets things, Elle. I'm not alone.”

“Things? Sure. Everyone misrecollects where they left the keys to the breezer now and then. But you don't just forget
things
, Petey. You forget a lot more than just little old things. This ain't about walking out with the stove on. And that's why Pocahontas here don't trust you with most of this operation, flyboy. Your head ain't exactly trustworthy all the time.”

Brushing off Elle's mocking tone, Piotr shook his head. “My memory may not be perfect but I can remember what goes on. Better than you, that's for damn sure.”

“Oh yeah? Fine.” Elle crossed her arms over her chest and pursed her lips, eyes narrowing with the challenge. “Tell me about the day I died, Pete. Tell Miss Elle all about it.”

“You died on…” he stopped, straining his mind for the important information. It seemed very close at hand, the date on the tip of his tongue, but muffled, as if the memory were wrapped and stored carefully away. “You were killed by…wait…
net
…” For several seconds he struggled. Finally, realizing the futility of trying to argue with them, he flushed and muttered, “You were wearing red.”

“Got that right at least,” she sighed. Then, teasingly, “My death was a doozy, though. Maybe I'll remind you about it sometime. Sit down and have us a little recollect.”

Lily sighed. “This is not helping.”

Elle smirked and flopped back onto the dirty floor, chuckling to herself. “Hush your mouth. Everyone needs to laugh at death a little, else all you can do is cry. Besides, it's funny the things a girl can have a chuck or two over, given enough time.” She turned to Lily and made the shoo-shoo gesture again. “What about you, Pocahontas? Got any questions for old Pete, since we're toodlin' down old memory lane?”

Ignoring Elle, Lily gravely took Piotr's hand in hers and gently rubbed her fingertips across his knuckles. Like his, her hands were roughly calloused but her touch was soft. “Elle brings up a good point. This can be our test to see if you should indeed be our scout. Do you remember my death, Piotr?”

“Of course not,” he scoffed, “you died ages ago, Lily.” He laughed. “James said you lived in tents, made pots, that sort of thing.” He shook his head. “I didn't believe him at first. It didn't seem real that anyone could be dead so long or have survived the Never like that.”

“James,” Lily said, “for all I love him, is a braggart and a fool. I made pottery with my mother, yes, but I lived in a pithouse.” Her brows furrowed and she inched closer, eyes intently searching his face. “Can you really not remember all the times we have talked about this before? Do you honestly not remember when we met in the Sandia foothills? The reds and orange that stretched to the sky? The mottled earth, the edges of the long grass-swept plains? None of it?”

This was utter nonsense. Piotr couldn't remember the days after his own death with such vivid detail, much less hers, so Lily was clearly teasing him. There was no test; they were having fun at his expense. Spending long hours discussing their lives was certainly something he'd remember with a girl as ancient and storied as Lily.

“Net.
My apologies.” Smiling now, calm at the realization that they must have decided to play some sort of joke on him, Piotr shook his head and let her continue on, enjoying the cadence of her smooth alto as she braided the joke into an elaborate tale. It was all fanciful nonsense but he had to hand it to her, she sure knew how to tell a story.

“Quit botherin' him, Lily,” Elle finally grumbled. She smiled sharply and poked him in the ribs. “I think it's pretty clear that Petey never remembers anything, do ya Pete?”

“I was lost and wandering,” Lily repeated, ignoring Elle and grasping at him, intent on keeping up the charade, “I could not find my way home. The floods had come, the antelope too, and my tribe had moved on, leaving only refuse behind.”

Lily's fingers pressed tightly into Piotr's, blunt nails digging into his flesh. “Remember, Piotr? You took me by the hand and led me to safety. You taught me the ways of the Never—how to avoid the Walkers, how to find and gather the Lost, not only for their protection but for our own. How to keep them safe. You taught me all this, Piotr. You!” Her voice broke. “You truly don't recall?”

Elle snickered, unable to keep a straight face, and Piotr realized his patience was at an end for their foolishness.

“Lily,” Piotr said, taking care to keep each word gentle but firm, “this joke's gotten old.” He squeezed her fingers. “We've got more important tasks than trying to fool with me,
da?”
He took a deep breath and glanced at Elle. “Ganging up on me isn't funny. I'll be the long-distance scout and keep an eye out for both the Lightbringer and Walkers. Enough said.”

“Atta-boy!” Elle agreed fervently, slapping her hands together. “Lily, we oughta quit beating our gums here. He ain't gonna buy our bull. Just give him the job already so we can move on to more important matters.” She cleared her throat. “His noggin hasn't gone soft on us recently, anyhow. Maybe he's sorted himself out, yeah?”

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